In this hellish world of harassment, Concrete Genie paints an important message
Bullying in moment-to-Monet gameplay
Sony tore it up at Paris Games Week, but there's a good chance you missed something special. Behind the giants that are Detroit, The Last of Us Part 2, and God of War was the diminutive new IP called Concrete Genie. Perhaps fittingly, this gorgeous experience themed around bullying was pushed out of the limelight by the AAA big kids. The more I got to see of it behind closed doors, the more I came to appreciate it as the hidden gem of the show, a sleeper hit waiting to happen.
Concrete Genie is by PixelOpus, the small PlayStation in-house team responsible for the twin-stick experiment that was Entwined, a feast for the senses that ultimately failed to evoke the emotional core enjoyed by games like Journey and Flower. Now, thanks to the plight of Ash, a young artist who is constantly targeted by bullies, this tiny studio is targeting our heartstrings first and foremost. From what I've seen and heard, they're about to be strummed like a flamenco guitar.
During one quiet moment at PGW I had the chance to pick the brain of Jeff Sangalli, Art Director, the man largely responsible for one of the most visually arresting games at the show…
Where did the inspiration for this come from, the concept?
Jeff Sangalli : When we were asked to come up with our own IP we had a pretty intense brain-storming session that resulted in 10 concepts. We run the studio as a flat hierarchy where all our ideas come from the team itself, and Concrete Genie came from a piece of art made from one of our VFX artists. It was a really provocative piece about a kid that was being bullied and he portrayed all these colorful characters on a wall, defending him against them.
After that initial brain-storm, we spent a lot of time conceptualising how we were going to allow the player to paint these creatures. What we have today is the third version of the mechanics that we'd come across. Each time we wanted to add as much agency as possible, and now you can paint anywhere in the game world, which is really awesome. Each player's version of this city will now look completely different, but that wasn't always the case.
Seems like we're effectively making our own cast of characters to populate the world. How diverse and lifelike can they be, and are they the friends Ash needs when the bullies try to get him?
JS: That's about the sum of it, yeah. We even have a unique animation for how you draw them. So if you draw a biped, or a quadruped, they'll act quite differently. The latter act more pet-like, I would say. There's quite a bit of connection to be built with them as they really react to you in unique ways – especially when you're painting other things, which is really fun. They don't judge you. Thank God [*laughs*]. You can ask them for help, too, if you're trying to find a page, or where the next puzzle is. You can talk to them and they'll help you platform around. They react to each other, too, and can follow you around corners. But there's limits to how they move. They're landlocked... initially...
I'd also like to mention that they can be quite spirited. It was a nightmare trying to take screenshots. We significantly upgraded the AI right before we did the trailer, which is hand camera work from a real-time build on a PS4. That moment in it where we were making a creature was a nightmare because the other creatures I didn't want in the shot got curious and kept poking their heads in to see what was up.
Whenever you hand a player freedom and a brush, dicks aren't too far behind. Are you worried about that?
JS: Look, with anything that has player-created content that's always out there, for sure. We're not too worried [*laughs*]. People can paint what they want.
What happens when the bullies show up? How much warning will we get to run?
JS: You can see their approach manifest in the world. When the bullies are nearby, your creatures freeze. The bullies can't see the world the way that Ash does. So when they're approaching everything grinds to a halt and the color drains from it. It's the classic concept that children have imagination, but you need imagination to see it. The bullies are live, roaming gameplay elements, though that wasn't always the case. We realized the game needed that, in the moment-to-moment gameplay. When the bullies just existed as a story element, their threat was lost.
I recently had a good experience playing some of the Mario games with my kids via the co-star mode. Would that sort of system be a good fit for Concrete Genie?
JS: I think that is a really good idea. We are currently looking into that right now. I think that there's quite a natural split in there that could be divided between two people in a very fun accessible way. We're absolutely investigating that.
And what about artistic inspiration. Have you been looking at street art, or other games that have been using graffiti mechanics? Jet Set Radio perhaps?
JS: In terms of street art, one of our designers, Jin, used her hometown in China as a really interesting point of reference. It was a fishing village that was sort of going abandoned, and so the kids who lived there would paint on the streets to make them look beautiful and lively.
It's funny you should mention [Jet Set Radio]. Our Creative Director is Dominic Robilliard and his very first industry job was a tester at Sega for Jet Set Radio! He loves that game; it's such a seminal classic. Inspiration was pulled from that game in terms of the size of the areas and how the bullies put pressure on you as a live gameplay element.